Most Efficient Isn't Always the Best

Some UX designers like to measure the effectiveness of a design in terms of "number of clicks".  The fewer clicks, keystrokes, or other interactions that are required of the user, the better the design.  This idea makes sense on the surface.  If a user can perform the intended action more quickly, that is a win, right?  Sometimes.

Near my hometown, there is a busy street which was recently re-designed to promote better traffic flow.  It is a common traffic pattern, with intersections on each side of the interstate -- one for exiting the interstate and another for entering the interstate.  As the story goes, there was a plan to create traffic lights at both intersections, which is common for this pattern.  An engineering firm suggested instead that two roundabouts be built, eliminating the need for traffic lights.  Roundabouts are known to be more efficient because vehicles rarely need to come to a complete stop.  Drivers can proceed when the outer lane of the roundabout is clear.  No more waiting needlessly at a red light while the intersection is clear.  These wouldn't be just any roundabouts -- they would have 3 lanes, each clearly marked so a driver would know which lane to be in.

It didn't take long after the roundabouts were built to hear the complaints of the drivers.  Some drivers were confused by the fact they needed to be in the right lane to make what used to be a left turn onto the interstate.  Other drivers were frustrated at the difficulty in crossing three lanes of traffic to reach the inner lane.  Still other drivers could not understand when to yield and when they had the right-of-way.  This led to frequent accidents.

Why would these roundabouts cause such a problem?  Europeans swiftly navigate roundabouts on their daily travels.  Numerous studies show roundabouts save travelers time.  Is there something wrong with the drivers in this Indiana town?  Well, yes and no.

In this part of the country, roundabouts are extremely rare.  Three-lane roundabouts are nowhere else to be found.  If all the drivers entering the roundabout had experience with this traffic pattern, it would flow smoothly as intended.  However, most of these drivers are unfamiliar with the rules of the roundabout and the best way to navigate it.  One could make the case that as drivers continue to use the roundabout, they will become comfortable with it and eventually come to praise its efficiency.  That may come to pass, but there will always be drivers entering the roundabout who rarely use it and cause issues even for the familiar drivers.

As UX designers, we often find ourselves striking a balance between an intuitive design and a powerful one.

An intuitive design is one that embraces common patterns most users have seen before.  The interface is so familiar, a user can navigate it in their sleep.  A form of textboxes and dropdowns needs no explanation.

A powerful design can be intuitive, but often it requires some learning and practice.  Consider a novice PC user creating a spreadsheet in Excel for the first time.  He will navigate with the mouse until he is forced to type.  When he needs to edit a cell, he will reach for the mouse and click the cell.  After he enters some text, he will then reach for the mouse again to edit another cell.  However, one day when a friend teaches him about the efficiency of using the arrow keys, while he may complain at first, he will eventually get used to it and never go back to the mouse to navigate the spreadsheet.  There is a learning curve, but the user will ultimately enjoy the application more because he took the time to learn the "power feature".

In some cases, you can offer two modes to accommodate both novice and advanced users (commonly represented by distinct "Basic" and "Advanced" interfaces). But when this is not possible and the two are in conflict, when should you lean toward an intuitive design versus a powerful one?

Favor an intuitive design when:

  • The feature frequently has new users, such as most public-facing websites
  • Returning users may have a significant gap since their last visit, during which they forget how to use the feature and must learn all over again
  • The action is not often repeated
Favor a powerful design when:
  • Users will access the feature repeatedly over time.  For example, an intranet application used all-day, everyday by employees who will quickly become expert, power users.
  • The added complexity is worth the time savings.  Learn from the users how often they will be performing this action.
  • You can add a quick walk-through that appears only for new users.  If it requires a long walk-through, new users will quickly become frustrated.  It could also be a red flag that the feature is too complex, even for advanced users.